Women funders with an eye on world affairs and human rights, take note: Critics fear that Mike Pompeo’s new “Commission on Unalienable Rights” is nothing more than a device for legitimizing a roll-back of gender, reproductive and LGBTQ rights globally.
In his July 8 “Remarks to the Press,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the new commission as an “informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy.” Opposition to the commission has been swift. Led by New Jersey’s Bob Menendez, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 22 Democratic senators—including presidential hopefuls Bennet, Booker, Gillibrand, Harris, Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren—sent a July 23 letter to Pompeo “expressing deep concern” about the commission. They also noted, “The President’s personal affection for those who have trampled on human rights has stained America’s moral fabric.”
In addition to the senators’ letter, hundreds of other current and former elected officials, including Obama’s national security advisor Susan Rice, as well as prominent academics, religious leaders, and heads of NGOs, human rights and social justice organizations composed a similar letter opposing the commission. They urge that it be disbanded immediately, and that Pompeo focus on protecting human rights globally. Among the many signatory organizations were Planned Parenthood, Equality Now, Equality California, Amnesty International, the ACLU, the Global Fund for Women, the International Women’s Health Coalition, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the National Women’s Political Caucus.
In his July 8 remarks announcing the Commission’s formation, Secretary of State Pompeo laments that since the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “gross violations continue throughout the world, sometimes even in the name of human rights,” and that “International institutions designed and built to protect human rights have drifted from their original mission.” Pompeo invokes former Czech dissident and President Vaclav Havel, and UK Rabbi and Member of Parliament Jonathan Sacks in stating, “We must, therefore, be vigilant that human rights discourse not be corrupted or hijacked or used for dubious or malignant purposes.”
Sounds reasonable, and Pompeo continues in the vein of a political philosophy professor addressing students enrolled in his fourth-year honors seminar: I hope that the commission will revisit the most basic of questions: What does it mean to say or claim that something is, in fact, a human right? How do we know or how do we determine whether that claim that this or that is a human right, is it true, and therefore, ought it to be honored? How can there be human rights, rights we possess not as privileges we are granted or even earn, but simply by virtue of our humanity belong to us?
Perhaps the Trump Administration is taking a hard turn away from buffoonery, autocracy and nastiness and toward a life of the mind! In their letter, the 22 senators note the many warning flags suggesting otherwise, notably the exclusion from the commission of the government body which would be of greatest service in elucidating and promoting human rights, the State Department’s own Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL). The DRL was founded in 1977 with the mandate “to help advance individual liberty and democratic freedoms around the world.” Given Pompeo’s concern that “Nation-states and international institutions remain confused about their respective responsibilities concerning human rights,” the DRL might provide some guidance given that it addresses U.S. founding documents, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and global and regional accords.
The 22 Senators question the Trump administration’s very commitment to human rights. “It seems that the administration is reluctant—or even hostile—to protecting established, internationally recognized definitions of human rights, particularly those requiring it to uphold protections for reproductive rights and the rights of marginalized communities, including LGBT persons.” Perhaps a different administration would be given the benefit of the doubt on a commission of this nature; however, as the senators note, “Instead of condemning gross human rights violators, President Trump has fawned over Kim Jong-un, embraced Vladimir Putin, praised Rodrigo Duterte, looked the other way as Xi Jinping imprisons millions, and covered up for Mohammed Bin Salman.”
At home, the Trump administration has appointed anti-choice judges and implemented anti-women and anti-LGBTQ measures. There is also the ongoing horror show at the southern border, and while one could go on and on in this vein, there remains a particularly dark and now seemingly forgotten blot on the U.S. human rights record which needs no study by a commission: Guantanamo Bay prison at the U.S. Naval Station in Cuba. This hangover from the early 2000s still exists and is home to dozens of people, many of whom are being detained without charge or trial.
Both letters condemning the commission cite its unrepresentative and problematic composition, including its chair, Professor Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. According to Pompeo, “Mary Ann is a world-renowned author, beloved professor, an expert in the field of human rights, comparative law, and political theory. She’s the perfect person to chair this effort.” Perfect if your intent is to undermine a woman’s right to choose globally. Glendon is a former US ambassador to the Holy See (the Vatican-based government of the Catholic Church) and a long-time and fervent reproductive choice opponent.
If the United States sees itself as a physician seeking to cure a world suffering from a multitude of human rights claims and complaints, perhaps the best course would be to first “do no harm” and not submit the fragile patient to a dangerously intolerant human rights commission!
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